Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 2:4 (December 2013), pp. 251–253; doi: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2013.10.006


Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey R. Stevens, Thorsten Pachur, and Lael J. Schooler; published by Elsevier Inc. on behalf of Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.


In his target article, Klein (2013) makes the important point that many approaches to studying memory neglect the function of memory, in particular its capacity to help predict the future. Here, we complement Klein’s argument in two ways. First, we point to an existing and well-developed research program that formalizes a functional approach to memory, exploring its adaptive nature. Second, we illustrate how this approach can be applied to analyze regularities in social interactions, which memory might exploit to predict future interactions.

John R. Anderson and colleagues (Anderson and Milson, 1989, Anderson and Schooler, 1991, Anderson and Schooler, 2000 and Schooler and Anderson, 1997) developed the rational analysis of memory, in which they argued that much of memory performance, including forgetting, might be understood in terms of adaptation to the structure of the environment. The first key assumption of the rational analysis is that environmental stimuli make informational demands on the cognitive system that are met by retrieving memory traces associated with those stimuli. The second assumption is that the memory system acts on the expectation that environmental stimuli tend to reoccur in predictable ways; the pattern of past encounters can, thus, predict the future need of information. The third assumption is that the memory system makes most accessible those traces that it predicts will be most useful in the future. Consequently, memory performance should reflect the patterns with which environmental stimuli occur and reoccur in the environment. For instance, more recently encountered stimuli will likely be encountered again. An adaptive memory system should make information about those stimuli more accessible because it is more likely to be needed. Conversely, the longer time interval since the last encounter, the less likely the information will be needed in the future, and so it can and should be forgotten.